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Role of Political Guidance for Self-Reliance in Defence

Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Dr. Prakash Menon is the Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat.
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  • June 01, 2020

    During his address to the nation on May 12, the Prime Minister called for a ‘Self-Reliant India’ as the pathway to be adopted as India confronts the COVID-19 pandemic. For the defence sector, ‘self-reliance’ has remained elusive for seven decades and India remains the second largest arms importer on the global stage.1 Import dependence and consequent strategic vulnerability have long been an area of concern. Despite continuous efforts, indigenisation has remained a losing battle and its turnaround will mainly depend on reforms in India’s military-industrial base, which is the supply side. This comment pertains to the demand side and seeks to examine the issue of alignment of national security objectives with arming of the military. 

    While there is likely to be a positive change in response to the Prime Minister’s call for ‘self-reliance’, one must also be wary of the crisis pushing misinformed ideas to the surface. For a major reform, the Prime Minister needs to address the demand side of the self-reliance problem in defence, which, in essence, is rooted in the inadequacies of civil-military relations. Without doubt, the recent structural reform through the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), who is also the Permanent Chairman – Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-COSC) and head of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), has boosted the possibility of improved civil-military relations.

    But first, to answer the question as to why the Prime Minister should take control of the demand side of the problem. It is because the Armed Forces lack political guidance. Ideally, a National Security Strategy (NSS) would have provided the source from which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) could under the Raksha Mantri’s signature provide political guidance to the military. For long, in the absence of a mother document like the NSS, the Armed Forces, through the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS), have formulated the draft of the Raksha Mantri’s operational directive which is then approved by the Raksha Mantri; in reality, the Armed Forces were scripting their own political guidance! The problem was compounded by a lack of expertise within the MoD. That inadequacy has been addressed by the creation of DMA. So, now, while the MoD is better equipped to provide political guidance, it is still severely handicapped in the absence of the NSS.  

    Two years ago, in April 2018, the task of formulating the NSS was given to the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) headed by the National Security Advisor (NSA), but nothing has been heard about it.2 Among other interactions, the formulation of the NSS will require intense civil-military discussions. The first important step is for the NSS to be crystallised by the National Security Council (NSC) and approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

    The NSS is not the golden key but an essential first step. The MoD should formulate the Raksha Mantri’s political directive, post the interaction between the political, military and civil service leaders. The political directive evolved should be based on the financial support likely to be available. Importantly, how much financial support can be planned for, at a time when it is increasingly challenged by the dire economic circumstances, should not be left to the mandarins in the finance ministry but should instead be driven by political considerations at the highest political level. It would be a strategic misstep if defence allocations are not given their due even as the clouds of geopolitical frictions, characterised by growing great power rivalry and China’s increasing influence in the sub-continent and the Indian Ocean, are getting darker.

    So, while the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package announced is the developmental push, there is no room to neglect India’s military preparedness. Asking the military to stop importing, eschewing state of the art weapons and equipment, relaxing General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs) and severely cutting its budget ignores the nature of military preparedness3; it is short-sighted and ignores national security imperatives. It is a given that military preparations are to be undertaken for application in the future, which is steeped in uncertainty. Choices made under the shadow of the immediate impact on the economy must not jeopardise the long-term trajectory of military preparations. However, it is this trajectory that needs to be altered with the help of the NSS and the Raksha Mantri’s political directive.

    Both of India’s adversaries are nuclear powers and, therefore, the utility and application of force will have to be governed by the reality of the nuclear shadow.4 There is a need for the military to embrace the concept of ‘useable military power’ and differentiating it from ‘deterrent military power’.5 The two can merge but it is subject to risks that political leadership is willing to take. In the nuclear era, political leadership has shown due caution and avoided large scale wars, given that the will of the adversary can no longer be subdued by force. It is a lesson that the Indian political leadership has yet to impose on the military leadership. Moreover, the natural proclivity of the military is risk-taking. Bereft of political guidance, the Indian military could tend to prepare for wars under the nuclear shadow that they should not fight and cannot win.

    A military strategy that is based on ‘useable military power’ as its prime focus can facilitate the shaping of India’s military instrument in a manner that will align military power to political objectives, be more effective in the continental and maritime realms, strengthen deterrence, and, facilitate greater self-reliance.

    Presently, most of India’s military power is weighted towards Pakistan, instead of its bigger adversary, China. This strategic imbalance is rooted in the political obsession with Pakistan, where the nature of the threat is terrorism. Such a threat requires the military capability to strike without posturing, the strike element being embodied in various forms of usable military power. However, what the country has instead is an army largely structured to capture large tracts of territory, a fact reflected in the unusable military power concentrated in the three strike corps. What is hiding in plain sight, is that several military plans and force structures are surviving from an age that is now history

    Structuring land power against China must take into account the fact, that China can use India’s vulnerabilities on the Northern border to exercise political pressure through limited land grabs. Countering this, through ‘useable military power’ is a matter of operational virtuosity and within reach. But what is not affordable and also unnecessary is the creation of the Mountain Strike Corps and such behemoths with questionable utility.6 In essence, a shift in operational doctrines on both fronts can relieve some resources for developing our maritime power that has the potential for being useful and can act as the major deterrent against both adversaries.

    India’s maritime power must be developed to exploit all the vulnerabilities of China and Pakistan in the Indian Ocean. Here again, it is not so much about fighting ‘big wars’ but about establishing dominance through the exercise of sea control whenever and wherever required. A land grab in the Northern border must also be deterred by India’s ability to apply force against China’s soft targets like fishing, deep-sea mining or survey elements, etc., in the Indian Ocean. What this entails is a matter of professional choices that is tempered with the long-term realities of the defence budget. But the budget must be parsed by the political leadership and not left to be determined only by financial perspectives.

    Self-reliance in defence may be better realised than now if India’s military instrument were to be shaped by political guidance and more comprehensive and integrated geopolitical considerations instead of being carried away by the contemporary winds of COVID-19. Security and development are two sides of the same coin. Self-reliance in defence can progress only after rectifying the focus of the military. The political leadership must take ownership of that correction.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Pieter D. Wezeman, Aude Fleurant, et al., “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2019”, SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2020.
    • 2. “NSA to head new Defence panel”, The Hindu, April 19, 2018; and Dinakar Peri, “Northern theatre command with China should have Navy element: Gen. Rawat”, The Hindu, May 17, 2020.
    • 3. Prakash Menon, “Arms Imports and the GSQR Problem”, Strategic Perspectives, The United Service Institution of India, May 12, 2020.
    • 4. See Review of Prakash Menon, The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow, Wisdom Tree, New Delhi, 2018, by Arjun Subramaniam, in Journal of Defence Studies, 13 (1), January-March 2019, pp. 83-86.
    • 5. The term ‘useable military power’ refers to that form of power that can be applied within the bounds of acceptable political risks. The use of artillery and limited airstrikes (Balakot) are examples. Whereas, ‘deterrent military power’ refers to those elements of power that are threats in being but whose use under the nuclear shadow entails serious political risks. Large scale invasion of the territory by application of strike corps is fraught with risks of nuclear use that can also be caused by misjudgement, misperception and miscommunication. But it supposedly has deterrent power to prevent Pakistan from undertaking major military action.
    • 6. Prakash Menon, “Dealing with Adverse Impact of Covid 19 on India’s Military Planning”, Strategic Perspectives, The United Service Institution of India, April 09, 2020.